In the fall of 1776, a wealthy Princetonian named Richard Stockton traveled to upstate New York to inspect troops in General George Washington’s army. These were the dark days of the American Revolution, when the Continental Army seemed to be doing more retreating than fighting. Stockton, an urbane attorney, was appalled to find many troops, among them his fellow New Jerseyans, “barefooted and barelegged.” In a heartfelt letter to his friend Abraham Clark, who lived in what is now Roselle, Stockton wrote, “There is not a single shoe or stocking to be had in this part of the world, or I would ride a hundred miles through the woods to purchase them with my own money.”
Earlier that same year, 56 men put their lives on the line by signing the Declaration of Independence. Stockton was one of five who signed on behalf of New Jersey. Their stories are often overshadowed by those of other, more famous founding fathers—named Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. But the stories of the New Jersey signers are fascinating just the same and offer a chance to slip back in time, learn more about New Jersey, and visit sites associated with the signers. Here’s a ramble through history in search of New Jersey’s Five Who Signed.
THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
Born in Elizabethtown in 1726, Abraham Clark worked as a surveyor and the local go-to guy for legal advice. He was known as the Poor Man’s Counselor due to his willingness to help folks with their land disputes, mortgages, and other small legal matters, often for no payment. But this hero of the middle class paid a horrible price during the Revolutionary War. Clark had two sons, Aaron and Thomas, captured during battle. It’s believed Thomas was tossed aboard the prison ship Jersey. Such ships made on-land prisons look like palaces. A veritable cesspool of dysentery, small pox, and any other contagion imaginable, the Jersey was like a floating morgue, with scores of prisoners dying and being dumped overboard daily to clear the putrid decks.
Clark’s other son was thrown into a New York dungeon called the Sugar House, where his fellow prisoners—themselves in dire straits—felt so bad for his condition and lack of nourishment that they passed him food through a keyhole. Both sons were eventually freed, probably as part of a prisoner exchange.
After the war, Clark served New Jersey as a representative to the Continental Congress. In 1794, he suffered sunstroke while watching some men build a bridge on his property and died hours later. A replica of his birthplace, owned by the local chapter of the New Jersey State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, stands today on part of Clark’s old property at 101 West Ninth Avenue in Roselle and is open one day each fall as part of Union County’s Four Centuries in a Weekend home tour. The Union County town of Clark is named for the signer, who is buried with his sons in nearby Rahway Cemetery (1670 Saint Georges Avenue, Rahway). Look for a 10-foot-tall obelisk engraved with the signer’s name.
STARS IN HIS EYES
Philadelphia-born Francis Hopkinson married one of patriot Joseph Borden’s daughters, who hailed from—where else?—Bordentown. Hopkinson was trained in law but excelled in multiple fields, including chemistry, music, engineering, writing, and art. He wrote operas, songs, and satires. During the early meetings of the Continental Congress, Hopkinson often drew caricatures of his fellow congressmen. His biggest claim to fame? He is credited in congressional records as having conceived a design for a U.S. flag, though, like many a long-suffering artist, Hopkinson never got the recognition he craved. For his flag design, he asked Congress for “a quarter cask of the public wine.” Congress told him to take a hike. Furious, Hopkinson quit his government job. His original design is believed to have included stars and stripes. The stars had six points, resembling those on Hopkinson’s family crest.
Hopkinson’s home in Bordentown—where he settled with his wife—was ransacked during the Revolutionary War, though he was unharmed. In a letter to his friend, mentor, and fellow inventor, Ben Franklin, he wrote of the event, “I have suffered much by the invasion of the Goths and Vandals. I was obliged to fly from my home at Bordentown with my family and leave all my effects in statu quo. The savages plundered me to their heart’s content—but I do not repine, as I really esteem it an honour to have suffered in my Country’s Cause and in Support of the Rights of Human Nature and of Civilized Society. I have not the abilities to assist our righteous cause by personal Prowess and Force of Arms, but I have done it all the service I could with my pen.”
You can visit the house at 101 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Occupied by various businesses today, it’s partially open to the public, and includes wall displays in tribute to the signer. Hopkinson, who died in 1791 at age 53, is buried at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia (admission: $2 admission), though the precise location of his grave is unknown. A modern stone, usually marked with a colonial flag, indicates the approximate spot.
Scottish-born John Witherspoon was a minister recruited by wealthy Jerseyans to become president of the college that later became Princeton University. Reverend Witherspoon first declined the post because his wife was afraid of sea voyages and believed that Scotland was far more civilized than New Jersey in the 1760s. But Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, who would eventually join Witherspoon in signing the Declaration, persuaded her to change her mind.
Witherspoon ended up heading the college and became the only active church minister out of 56 men to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was 53. Witherspoon, who coined the word “Americanism”—meaning a phrase or manner of speaking that is distinctly American—lost his son to the Revolutionary War and saw the precious library that he donated to the school ransacked and burned.
The Reverend has received good press in recent years because of the achievements of a descendant—Reese Witherspoon. If you visit Princeton today, you can stroll along Witherspoon Street near the university campus, lift a glass in his memory at the Witherspoon Grill (57 Witherspoon Street), and inspect his grave in the President’s Lot on the southwest edge of Princeton Cemetery (29 Greenview Avenue; 609-924-1369).
Witherspoon lived in two Princeton homes. One, dubbed Tusculum, is a private residence and not open to the public. The other, known as the President’s House or Maclean House, stands on the campus facing Nassau Street and is home to the university’s alumni offices.
HUNTED LIKE A BEAST
“Honest” John Hart was a New Jersey farmer who owned about 400 acres of land and a couple of grist and saw mills. Though not highly educated, Hart interested himself in the affairs of the world outside his Hunterdon County farm. He even served as a judge.
The year 1776 was difficult for Hart. In October, his wife fell sick and died. By December, the British were in Hart’s neck of the woods. When troops drew near his home, the still-grieving widower sent his young children to stay with friends, then hid out in the nearby hills. Legend says Hart slept in caves, doghouses, and snowy fields while the British hunted him—as one historian says—“like a noxious beast.” Historians think he sought shelter in a rock formation in the region. Although he probably spent no more than a month on the run, it was undoubtedly stressful for a man in his 60s.
Hart’s house and farm were probably plundered or damaged, but he wasn’t ruined. A year and a half after his runaway adventure, Hart generously hosted George Washington at his place and allowed 12,000 of the general’s troops to camp in his fields. His grave is marked with an obelisk in First Baptist Church Cemetery on West Broad Street in Hopewell. The tombstone incorrectly reports the date of Hart’s death as 1780. He died in 1779.
IN NEED OF REST
And what of poor Richard Stockton? It’s arguable that he endured greater physical suffering than any of the other 56 signers of the Declaration. Because of his support of the patriotic cause, he was yanked from bed in Monmouth County, where he was hiding from the British, and flung into prison in Perth Amboy (and later moved to New York City). There he languished for months without food and adequate shelter until his release on parole. (The terms of his release are unclear; it’s possible he recanted his patriotic ideals to gain his release. No other signer was forced to make such a concession.)
Devastated physically, he returned to his pillaged home, Morven, where he recovered his health but died from cancer in 1781 at age 50. Morven endured and was the official residence of the New Jersey governor until 1982. It serves as a museum today (historicmorven.org). Stockton was buried in Stony Brook Quaker Meeting House Cemetery (470 Quaker Road, Princeton), where you’ll find a marker instead of a modern gravestone in his memory.
How does the state commemorate Stockton’s sacrifice today? With a charming hamlet named Stockton in Hunterdon County, Stockton College in Pomona, and, of course, a rest area in his honor on the New Jersey Turnpike in Mercer County.
Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese are authors of Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame & Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence (Quirk Books, 2009).